Reporter's Notebook

Debating Mass Incarceration
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Below is all our discussion related to the October 2015 cover storyThe Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” For a back-and-forth between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jeffrey Goldberg, go here. For TNC’s rebuttal to National Review’s Kay Hymowitz, go here. If you’d like to contribute, email

Show 18 Newer Notes

A Note on the Moynihan Report, Black Women and 'Urbanology'

My piece on mass incarceration is long. I wish it wasn’t but it is. Believe it or not it was once even longer. The first draft clocked in around 19k and then ballooned in edits to 21k, before shrinking down to a svelte 17k. (I think that’s where we ended up .) Like James Bennet, I tend to cringe a little when people praise things I write for being “long.” I’m a Gza guy:

To many songs, weak rhymes that’s mad long
Make it brief son, half short and twice strong

Still working on that. My brilliant editor Scott Stossel helped me lose a lot of fat, but I think next month I’ll send him some haiku.

Still,  there is one thing I would have liked to have said more about. I had a rather lengthy section toward the end on the intellectual roots of the Moynihan report. I am going to reproduce those paragraphs here. These were neither fact-checked, nor copy-edited. It’s just “the raw.” I’m reproducing it this way for two reasons:

1.) I think it’s good for young writers, and even readers, to have some idea of what a first draft looks like. (In my case, it looks a lot like my blogging.) I think it’s important that people know that there is no magic in writing. It’s just pushing words.

2.) Had “Notes” existed at the time, I likely would have written something like this. It’s a redo for me. I think it’s cool to have an unedited record of how something strikes you.

To my mind, The Moynihan Report is rooted in some really ugly assumptions in mid-20th century sociology and psychology about black people in general and black women in particular. The book that helped me process this, more than any other, is Daryl Michael Scott’s Contempt and Pity. I wish I could have said more about this theme, and that book, in the original piece.

But without further adieu, here we go:

A reader comments on the annotated March 1965 report that TNC points to above:

Among other occupations, Moynihan was an academic. His seminal work strikes me as being a way to establish his bona fides in the academic world, and unquestionably he was successful. At the time Moynihan, was a well-known figure in a cottage industry filled with recently minted academics; [I’ve] never thought this group added much to the debates of the time, and less so today. … Essentially, Moynihan’s work was a gambit to have a seat at a table that had no open chairs.

But another reader “couldn’t disagree more,” pointing to a little-known memo our editors just unearthed—a May 4, 1964 memo from Moynihan offering LBJ policy prescriptions related to his upcoming report:

Almost every point made in that Moynihan memo is right on and current today. The clarity of the message is a stark contrast to the muddled, finger-pointing, self-satisfied BS that passes for policy analysis today.

Read it for yourself here. And here is one more supplementary document—an April 20, 1964 memo from Moynihan to the U.S. labor secretary making the case for more aggressive action on behalf of black Americans, nearly a full year before the Moynihan report was complete.

TNC’s cover story is here. Much more debate and discussion to come, via

The Atlantic’s new cover story, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” just dropped. It’s a sweeping essay from Ta-Nehisi Coates, with videos, photos, and annotations throughout, so you may want to settle into your favorite chair before reading. From the first section:

Our carceral state banishes American citizens to a gray wasteland far beyond the promises and protections the government grants its other citizens. Banishment continues long after one’s actual time behind bars has ended, making housing and employment hard to secure. And banishment was not simply a well-intended response to rising crime. It was the method by which we chose to address the problems that preoccupied Moynihan, problems resulting from “three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment.” At a cost of $80 billion a year, American correctional facilities are a social-service program—providing health care, meals, and shelter for a whole class of people.

To listen to TNC narrate an illustrated intro to the essay, see our previous note. Above is another video illustrated by Jackie Lay, narrated this time by sociologist Bruce Western, quoted in the title of this note.

Over the next several weeks, we’ll be airing all kinds of discussion and debate over TNC’s essay and a series of companion pieces, compiled here. Email your own contribution to and we’ll do our very best to feature it. (For an example of this approach, see our long reader debate over last month’s cover story on the new campus PC.)

For the rest of the October 2015 issue, go here. The Notes section will be covering its contents throughout the month.

Ta-Nehisi narrates an exceptionally well-done video by illustrator Jackie Lay:

TNC writes about the new video here. It’s pegged to his upcoming cover story about black incarceration, available online Monday night. Relatedly:

We're going to have a ton of reader debate and discussion aired in the coming weeks over TNC's cover story, so stay tuned. If you have any productive thoughts about the data presented in the Jackie Lay video and/or TNC's framing of it, email